Kindu, March 20, 2003

p1010151.jpg“Anybody who thinks they know what is going on has not been paying attention:” British officer during the Bosnian war. 

“If you are in the Congo for two weeks, you write a book.  If you are here for two months, you write a letter.  If you are here for a year, you don’t say anything.”  Anton of the Fondation Hirondelle in Kindu for 5 months. 

UN HQ Kindu monuckin.jpg UN HQ in Kindu 2003

I thought Kindu was the anus of the earth but then I went to Lubao. Well,  all considered, Kindu is the anus of the Earth after all. Port Empain was founded in 1905 by the Baron d’Empain, the Grandfather of the man by the same name who lost a finger in the late 1970’s, for those of you who followed the famous kidnapping at the time.  Of course, Grandfather probably never came here, but the mines, the boats and then the railway to Lumbumbashi made him a rich man. 

If you dig deep enough you can find the tracks.  The two cranes at the port are idle.  The Gare is a testimony to past glory as are the brick and concrete buildings along the river-street and one or two side streets.  There are still traces of a paved road here and there.  To sum up, the town of 200 000 (an estimation impossible to verify) is a sometimes muddy, sometimes dusty Dodge City before the cattle came.  The one structure, which the Belgians built and still keeps all its outside prestige, is the prison.  But everything else the Belgians left behind (and they did leave a lot of infrastructure) the Congolese either did not maintain or looted. 

If it were not for the UN, there would be no economy here at all.  Three hundred laborers work for three dollars a day.  One works, three watch on in turns.  The contingents and staff spend some money and sell to the black market.  In fact, the UN has built a SIM city here.  Everything was flown in: bulldozers, trucks, jeeps, cranes, pre-fab offices, computers, fuel depots … everything. 

Kindu is held by the RCD-Goma rebels.  It is an enclave.  The first Mai Mai checkpoint is two kilometers outside of town.  The RCD-G also flies everything in from Goma.  Nothing gets into the city by road.  You can imagine that everything lacks, the markets are poor and anything, which could be bought, is priced astronomically.  But because Kindu has an airport and is the capital of Maniema province, the RCD-G wants to hold it. 

I should be a bit more honest.  Thanks to the Uruguayans, you can buy bottles of fuel and many other stolen UN produce from the locals. Then the Congolese help themselves too. We are going to have to fire a Congolese at the local radio for stealing two bags of cement and painting his house in UN blue.  Now that is stupid because a Radio Okapi reporter with a UN contract makes 800 dollars a month in a country with an annual percapita  income of under 300 dollars.    

They just cannot help stealing.  Now, I know this sounds like blanket racism. I do have hope in the Congolese I have met who risk their lives to change their country. Of course there are exceptions, but I am afraid this is the rule.  Stealing from a white, for them, is alright.  Many of you who read this may feel the same way. But they steal from each other non stop.  The only thing they feel they do wrong is get caught.  You should see how they blame everybody else to get off the hook.  It happens all over. “There is no correlation for them between money and effort,” said one UN staff member. 

Yes, France, Belgium and the US have a lot to answer to in this country.  They kept Mobutu and his corrupt regime in power for so long.  But the mess the Congo is in now is an African made mess and one of Congo’s big problems, I am discovering, is the Congolese themselves.  I’ll come back to this, perhaps. 

Two weeks ago, in another part of the country, the MilOps (Military Observers) asked the Ugandans what all the shooting was about the previous night.  They answered they were just trying out their weapons.  This has become a sort of euphemism.  Both sides here in Kindu try out their weapons most every night.  The problem is they try them out in each other’s direction. This leads to serious misunderstandings, and usually ends up with people getting hurt. 

The garrison here is commanded by one of the top three on the UN list for crimes against humanity and war crimes.  Bernard Buyamungu, also known as the Butcher of Kinsangani, is  about 1 meter 50 tall.  He can hardly see over the steering wheel of his badly camouflage-painted pick-up, one of the few non-UN vehicles in town.  He thinks that with the transition he will become a senior officer in the new army and go to a famous military school in Europe.  Radio Okapi reporters say he knows how to read and write.  At least as well as any six-year-old. 

colonel.jpg  Colonel Bernard Buyamungu

I live in the upstairs flat with two Germanic-Swiss.  Upstairs from what?’ you may ask.  Where would any self-respecting Swiss live?  The upstairs of the town’s only bank, of course.  The bank has not had any money or clients in five years, yet the employees come to their offices every workday.  They rent out the bank manager’s home, the upstairs flat and anything else the bank owns in town to UN people and pay themselves their salaries out of that.  The bank manager is in Kinshasa with what is left of the money he took with him at the beginning of the war.  For once, a legitimate business. 

There is no electricity in town, ever.  The RCD-G told the UN: “You repair the generators.  You provide the fuel.  You pay us for the electricity and we give it to everyone else free. 

The UN said they are not in the business of making the RCD look good and politely refused.  So, all the UN personnel bought generators and had the UN fly them in.  It costs us $23 a week in Kerosene to run the fridge and $10 a night in fuel for four hours of electricity.  What little fuel there is on sale is horrendously expensive (and stolen from the UN).  This is the only place I have seen where the UN cost allowance of $138 a day is justified.  I get $35.  Just as well because there is nothing I care to buy.  I have been quite hungry all week.  I have not yet found the place where they are selling the Army rations the contingents trade with the locals on the black market. Oh yes, the Swiss do feed me. 

I went up river 20 kilometers to Lubao with two UN patrol boats for a contact with the Mai Mai leadership.  It was the first time they did not fire on the boats.  But when the Uruguayans put on their body armor and helmets I felt quite naked.  I did not want to take any flak without a jacket.   

zweifel.jpg Swiss Major Zweifel and Uruguayan Skipper 

It would have been funny in other circumstances, like on TV for example, to watch the Mai Mai row out their pirogues and stop two heavily armed speedboats.  The officers negotiated passage and off we went until the next group of barebacked youth with bones in their hair and lucky charms around their necks to protect them came out to greet us.  The Mai Mai believe bullets cannot hurt them; that they will go through them like water, whence their name (Mai is Swahili for water). 

We made small, slow, circles 50 meters off shore, providing cover for the shore party … for six hours in a baking sun and killer heat.  I thought I was going to pass out.  Perhaps I did. Now, I am a man who likes fire-power so, when the nervous Mai Mai pointed out they did not like loaded 7.62 mm machineguns pointing in their direction, and the skipper asked his men to put the ammo away, I became a bit more nervous.   

Once the soldiers on our boat got a little bored, they cruised a hundred meters up to where the women were bathing and asked them to show their breasts.  The girls did this with curious pleasure. Other than this amusement, I must say the soldiers were very professional. Yes, the soldiers fool with the local girls and, apparently in some cases, the local boys.  It is estimated that 30% of the South Africans go home with Aids.  This is unfortunate given that only those soldiers who tested negative are allowed to take part in the mission.  The Uruguayans are taking kids as young as 10 to the bars and making them drink.  Bar is a big word.  It is just someone who has a back yard and a stock of beer.  There are three in town. 

Perhaps the most scandalous is the local Committee of the International Red Cross representative, a pretty Swiss woman, who reportedly (from a very sure source) is having an affair with the RCD-Goma liaison officer, the man who represents the mass murderers and rapists holding the town.  She even made it public when she brought him inside the UN compound to a party!  Talk about lax security.  Talk about the image of the International Red Cross. 

I was not surprised to see how friendly the West African officers are with the RCD-Goma killers.  They are out of the same school of corruption and brutality.  But it is discouraging for a Mission with an already too nebulous mandate. 

Every morning I drink my coffee on the balcony and watch the people bring out their dead and take them to the cemetery; Mostly children, carried by the men in front and the women, crying almost like a song, a few meters behind.  They die like flies here.  I cannot say how many because there are no statistics.  They die mostly due to complications from malnutrition.   Susan, the house cook and cleaner, lost a daughter Monday night.  She was back to work Wednesday with another of her babies strapped to her back.  She is one of three wives her husband has and together they still have nine children left.  Even if they figure they will have a lot of kids so a few are around after the age of five, the bringing out of the dead remains for me, a very Dark Ages spectacle.  

A couple of weeks ago the UN discovered a field of human bones near the airport, which was left over from when the Rwandans held the town.    For the moment, nobody is investigating.  The UN just moved to another location and left the bones where they lie.  I saw them myself.  There are indications from the way they are cut and the way they lie that the people were eaten. Some locals say they saw the Rwandans cooking human beings.  If this were Kosovo, hundreds of specialists would have been in here investigating. 

It is not clear what the UN mandate is here.  A Senegalese officer, Major Jabril, told me some of the Mai Mai wanted to be disarmed but the UN could not accept their arms because they have no mandate to protect them against the RCD-G.  What they want to do is disarm the Interahamwe, the former Rwandan Hutu Army responsible for the 1994 genocide, and send them back to Rwanda.  Now as the Mai Mai hate the Rwandan invaders of present who back the RCD-G,  (not to be confused with the RCD-K/ML backed by the Ugandan invaders) they are naturally allied with the Interahamwe.  Further proof that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. 

I’m not sure what the solution is here.  The Congolese I talk to say the White man has to come back and take over; that the UN should run the country.  I told them “Dream on.  You’re on your own.”  I think anybody who pretends to have a solution is out of their mind or has not been paying attention. 

The UN ‘observes’ them die.  The NGO do-gooders just perpetuate the mentality of “give me, give me,” and frankly make matters worse.  The little kids across from my lodging know how to say, “give me money” in three European languages and they have never stepped foot in school.  Can you imagine what good students they would be if given the chance?  Corruption is endemic, a way of life. 

One example.  The UN agreed to help the waterworks get the water purification plant functioning again if they would then manage it with the revenue from selling the potable water to the population.  Of course, most people preferred to take the polluted water they don’t pay for, believing if they can’t see anything in the water it can’t hurt them (yes, the microbes do make them sick).  Nevertheless, the waterworks plant made enough money to buy what was needed to go on producing potable water.  But the manager thought he deserved a vacation in Goma and took 75% of the cash.  Now he’s back and wants the UN to pay again. 

I could go on but all good stories have to come to an end.   Believe me, I have not given you a glimpse of what I see here.  To tell you the truth, I would not know where to begin.

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